Jesus Questioned about Resurrection (Mark 12:18-27)

By Julie M. Smith. This post is extracted from The Gospel according to Mark, part of the BYU New Testament Commentary.

New Rendition

18 And Sadducees—who say there is no resurrection—come to him. And they were questioning him,  saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses  wrote  for  us,  ‘If a man’s brother should die and leave behind a wife and not leave children, he should marry his brother’s wife, and he should raise children for his brother.’ 20 There were seven brothers, and the first took a wife and, dying, left no children. 21 And the second took her and died, not having left children, and the third, the same. 22 And none of the seven had children. And last of all, the woman died. 23 In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as a wife.” 24 Jesus said to them, “Aren’t you mistaken because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they do not marry nor are they given in marriage but are like angels in heaven. 26 Now as for the dead—that they are raised—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the [burning] bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?’ 27 He is not the God of the dead but of the living. [So] you are very mistaken.”


The point of the Sadducees’ (highly unlikely) scenario is to suggest that resurrection cannot be possible because if it were, a woman might end up with seven husbands in the next life. The Sadducees would rather deny the Resurrection than countenance the possibility of polyandry. Given that they presumably had no problem with polygyny (which is mentioned in their scriptures), this serves as a startling example of sexist thought. Further, this scenario is only a problem for them if they assume that all marriages are eternal. If there was any possibility in their minds that marriages were not eternal, then the solution to their question is simple: most or all of her marriages would not be eternal. (Even for Latter-day Saints, who believe in the possibility of eternal marriages, there is doubt as to whether levirate marriages would be eternal since the purpose of the marriage was to provide children to the deceased brother, not to be a permanent match.)

This story is not solely a dispute about this one unusual case. To the extent that the Sadducees (or Mark’s audience) understood that Jesus would die and be resurrected, it is important for Jesus to be able to defend the idea of resurrection; otherwise, his entire ministry is undermined.

Jesus’ teachings here also imply that it is not the mere fact of a marriage that makes it eternal, but rather a marriage requires something else (what Latter-day Saints would now call the sealing authority) to render it a post- mortally valid marriage. Apparently, the Sadducees did not realize this, hence Jesus’ comment that they do not understand the scriptures (which reference covenants and ordinances and sealing power, if not with the clarity that Latter-day Saint readers sometimes superimpose on them) or the power of God (which makes it possible for some, if not all, marriages to be eternal). The obvious way out of the Sadducees’ trap is for Jesus to say that there are no marriages in heaven; the fact that the Sadducees do not consider this a possibility (and thus think that their question proves that there can be no resurrection) suggests that the Sadducees assumed that Jesus would believe in marriage after death so strongly that he would be more likely to concede the Resurrection than postmortal marriage. In other words, this trap question is a testament to the strength of Jesus’ (and the Sadducees’) belief in marriage after death.

Jesus’ warning about not knowing the scriptures fits into a pattern in Mark’s Gospel where knowledge of the scriptures is shown to be different from understanding of the scriptures; this would have been a powerful warning for Mark’s audience. The Sadducees assumed that the law of Moses was a template for the eternal order, but this is not correct: Jesus’ answer implies that the law of Moses was, in at least some respects, an accommodation to the problems of a fallen world. It may have been a particularly relevant statement for the Sadducees, since they rejected most of the scriptural record. (While the evidence is scant, it is likely that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the HB as scripture.)

Jesus’ teachings about marrying in heaven may appear to be contrary to Latter-day Saint ideas about the eternal potential of marriages. But given that the Sadducees are not actually interested in learning from Jesus but rather just trying to trip him up, one should not be surprised that Jesus chose not to teach them anything else about marriage at this point (compare 11:33). Of course, there may be a hint of a higher teaching in the note that God has powers that they do not understand. In other instances in Mark, Jesus hints at the eternal nature of marriage (see 10:8–9, where it is difficult to imagine that God would “tear asunder” the “one flesh” after death). Further, the wording used in this passage refers to the contracting of new marriages (“marry” and “given in marriage”; not “continue to be married”). This idea is wholly congruent with Latter-day Saint thought: it is precisely because new marriages are not believed to be contracted in the next life (D&C 132:16)[1] that proxy marriages are performed in this life and that eternal marriages are regarded as so very important. Even some non–Latter-day Saint interpreters take this view (although, admittedly, the sentiment is rare): “Notice what Jesus does not say. He does not say that there will be no marriage in the age to come. The use of the terms [marry] and [are given in marriage] is important, for these terms refer to the gender-specific roles played in early Jewish society by the man and the woman in the process of getting married.. . . Thus Mark has Jesus saying that no new marriages will be initiated . . . this is surely not the same as claiming that all existing marriages will disappear.”[2]


12:18 Then come unto him the Sadducees, which say there is no resurrection; and they asked him, saying: This is the only reference to Sadducees in Mark’s Gospel. “They were not so much a religious party (as the Pharisees), but more of a social class, or elite, composed mostly of the priests. The traditionalists of their day, they rejected all ‘innovations,’ including the idea of the resurrection, angels, etc.”[3]70 In addition to the priests themselves, the term “the Sadducees” probably includes their family members and followers.

Interestingly, in the HB, the only generally accepted references to life after death are in Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 2:2 (although many other texts are interpreted to refer to postmortal life by some). The Pharisees and other Jews did believe in resurrection, so, interestingly, Jesus will side with the Pharisees here.

12:19 Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man’s brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother: This verse quotes Deuteronomy 25:5, which describes levirate marriage, the practice of a childless widow marrying her deceased husband’s brother so that she might have children. Those children were regarded as belonging to the deceased brother and thus continuing his line and memory.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the term for “raise up” (Greek: exanistēmi) is similar to the term for “resurrection” (Greek: anastasis). The implication for the Sadducees is that an actual resurrection is not necessary since the children produced by the levirate marriage serve whatever purpose would be filled by resurrection: people would, in effect, live forever through their children. Of course, in this case, even six levirate marriages did not “raise up” anything, so their own example undermines the idea that levirate marriage negates the need for resurrection.

12:20 Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed. 21 And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise. 22 And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also. 23 In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife. 24 And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God: It may seem a little odd that Jesus says that they “err” when they have only asked a question, but their question contained erroneous assumptions. These assumptions would include that (1) levirate marriages would be eternal or that (2) polyandry in the next life is so unthinkable that it could be used to deny the Resurrection. (One way to avoid polyandry in this situation would be for the woman to be given a choice of husbands, but apparently the Sadducees find that notion equally impossible.) The possibility of polyandry may seem excessively speculative, but in the last instance when Jesus was challenged about marriage relationships, he took the argument in a decidedly nonandrocentric direction that was almost certainly unanticipated by his audience (10:12), so perhaps the same thing happens here. That said, the first option is more likely: Jesus is teaching here that contra the assumption of the Sadducees, not all marriages are eternal. (This is likely to strike Latter-day Saint readers as ironic.) The Sadducees have asked whose wife she would be, but Jesus does not say “the first man’s” or “all of theirs.” Jesus’ answer in 12:25 suggests that none of these marriages will be eternally valid—even the first one, which was not a levirate marriage, apparently wasn’t eternally permanent either. But particularly for the levirate marriages, there is a good case to be made that they would not be expected to be eternal. In chapter 10, Jesus explains that marriages stem from the original order of creation, but only the Fall—by bringing death into the world—would provide a scenario where levirate marriage was required. Thus, many Jews (and, apparently, Jesus here as well) separated regular marriage from levirate marriage.

What does it mean to say that the Sadducees do not know the power of God? At its most basic, this phrase means that resurrected life is different from earth life. First, concerns about dying without seed would not be applicable, so levirate marriage would not be necessary. Second, God’s power permits some (but not all) marriages to be eternal. And life in the resurrection is different from earthly life—to the point where the potential for polyandry is not a reason to discount the Resurrection.

12:25 For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven: At its most basic level, this statement goads the Sadducees, who apparently did not believe in angels.[4] It is easy to imagine Mark’s early audiences laughing at this line. While most interpreters assume that the reference to angels means that angels will be unmarried,[5] this is not necessarily the case. The HB does not describe angels as asexual (Gen. 6:1–4). Rather, being like the angels means not being subject to death and therefore not requiring levirate marriage.

12:26 And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying: This question indicates that Jesus was well aware that the Sadducees’ question was not really about marriage but rather about resurrection.

The phrase “in the bush” probably functioned much as chapter and verse divisions do today: it was a short-hand way of saying “in the story of the burning bush” and calling the audience’s attention to the story to which he was referring. At the same time, the fact that the bush was on fire but was not consumed serves as an example of the power of God, specifically (if subtly) of the power of God to preserve life from death.

I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?: This is a quote from Exodus 3:6. In context, God is self-identifying to Moses to prepare Moses to return to the people. If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob no longer existed at the time this was spoken, then it would have made no sense for God to mention their names. The fact that God does use them leads to the conclusion that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must have existed after death (as Jesus explains in the next verse). Further, “God had made promises to these patriarchs, and since they had not all yet been fulfilled, it must be assumed that they are still alive.”[6]73 So the continued existence of the patriarchs negates the Sadducees’ beliefs.

While some have emphasized the tense of the verb “am” (as opposed to “was”), Mark does not actually have that verb in the text (it is assumed but not included), and so that does not appear to be the point of the statement.

12:27 He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye there- fore do greatly err: Jesus explains that, in a sense, there are no dead people: God can self-define in terms of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they are still living.

“Ye . . . do . . . err” translates the same Greek verb (planaō) as “ye . . . err” in 12:24, framing Jesus’ remarks and emphasizing the idea that the Sadducees’ question relies on erroneous assumptions.

[1] Note that the language appears to echo this very passage in Mark with its references to marrying, being given in marriage, and being as angels.

[2] Witherington, Gospel of Mark, 328; compare Collins, Mark, 561–62.

[3] Bratcher and Nida, Translator’s Handbook, 374.

[4] Acts 23:8. However, there are several references to angels in the first five books of the HB (for example, Gen. 22:15), which the Sadducees did accept as scripture, so it is difficult to know what to make of this evidence.

[5] This is contra the position of D&C 132:16, which takes the angelic state as an unmarried one, but in terms of determining how Mark’s audience would have interpreted the reference to angels, it does not seem likely that they would have assumed that the angelic state was an unmarried one.

[6] Witherington, Gospel of Mark, 329.